Some serious reading here, this book took the better part of my commuting time in the last few weeks, i really wanted to know what made this man so (in)famous, and i don’t regret giving it the time. The book published in two parts (memoirs), the second one addressing a lot of the critics that met the first one.
The book is entirely constructed as a demonstration that property, and specifically private property of production means, is false, in the sense that it creates contradictions, leading to injustice in societies that adopt it. Of course, such a proposition is bound to raise a few eyebrows, and the way Proudhon puts it, by very analytical deconstructions, certainly makes one feel there is a great danger here, if you think property is an important part of societies, or even, as a lot of people believe it (no judgment here), the one funding bloc of civilization. Proudhon is not proposing that everybody is free to dispose of everything, though, he goes a long way to make the distinction between possession, and property, and while he consider the latter false, the former is deemed right and very important for civilization. I’ll surely betray the author for trying to put it in a few words, but in short, you have possession of what you need to live and work, of what you produce, but you can’t possess what you don’t directly use. This distinction makes all profit not derived from one’s work, impossible, and in Proudhon’s view, justice possible.
To show the injustice of property, the two historical justifications for property are proven to be baseless, the first one being that the first person to declare something to be his property, and strong enough to hold it, can claim it as a property, is just a sanction of strength, and not a principle of justice of any kind, because it means that families will inherit different shares based on the share of their parents, and the number of their siblings (since the inheritance is not just for the first child anymore), and as the constitution makes everyone equal in rights, from birth, the birth can’t be the origin of different rights. The second source of property, work, is in no better position, because it’s self evident that a lot of exception would apply, the first one would be that it would only apply on any unclaimed property (building something in your neighbor’s garden won’t give you any right on it, you’ll rather have to pay for the destruction of your work), and secondly, when you cease to work, is the thing you worked on still your property? Proudhon’s claim that if no, then it’s possession, and if yes, then work gave you more than you earned, you only earned the benefit of your work, the better production it created, not the tool itself.
Proudhon also claims that his views are just a clarification from the views people really hold, although they are unable to understand it. He shows a lot of example where we don’t accept the principle of property as inherently inviolable, and that in the end, people just have to recognize that property is just a misconception of possession, which is the true principle we can accept.
It’s important to note that Proudhon is not a communist, he regrets that nobody came up yet with a system that doesn’t consist of either property or communality, the price of communism, a very rigid state making liberty impossible in his views, is too high to be considered a good alternative to property. His system would only share wealth among people producing what other people needs and are ready paying for, be it food or poetry, it seems pretty clear that there wouldn’t be much help for unproductive (by their peer’s definition) members of the society (considering that it’s the fact that property makes people wealthy not by their work, but by the work of others with their assets, so by not being productive themselves, that Proudhon’s disagree with, we can say it’s a coherent position). We can note that the mechanical limitation in accumulation of wealth in such a system would mean that wealth disparities would be much lower than todays standards (and they are much bigger than people usually think these days).
Proudhon also seem to be far from a revolutionary, he notes in a few places that his memoir is addressed to intellectuals, not to the common man, and that nobody wants to see the reaction such a thing would cause, especially in hard economic times. He calls for a deep change in legislation, before change comes up in a disastrous way, going as far as saying “saying that only an overthrow can bring reform, is, for me, doing a syllogism, and looking for truth in the unknown”, in other words, revolution is a gamble you don’t want to make.
This book was also interesting because of the expressed views on history, being
written in the 1830′s, a mere 40 years after the French revolution, yet in a
way more modern time (XIXth century) than this period. Of course, Proudhon
being very radical in his views, it will make sense to seek other opinions on
the persons and ideas discussed here, but it’s very interesting nonetheless.
The XIXth century was a high time of intellectual reflection and discussions, a lot of systems being proposed and tried, science was tentatively applied to government systems, with of course, varying success.
On the other hand, it’s interesting to see that Proudhon hold some very conservatives opinions, regarding women, for example, of course, they are symptomatic of his time, but he notes his disapproval of the early feminist movements, considering that women are simply not built to hold the same qualities as men.
On the literary side, i appreciated the style in a lot of places, but some parts where lengthy and a bit unexciting, the lack of structure (it looks like a 250 pages rambling followed by another 150 pages rambling) and the terse style, although often enjoyable, made me feel like i was crossing a desert more than a few times, maybe that’s also why i need to get back into the habit of reading :).
Closing up, i think i got out of the book with a deeper understanding of the intricacies of rights and property, of the difficulties of making equality and justice happen without limiting liberty too much. And it gave me motivation to read other books of the same kind, that is, theoretical studies on societies and socialism.